Sarah’s story: Turned out to be fiction rather than fact
In 2015, Welfare Weekly exposed the Department for Work and Pensions for using fake testimonies from fake characters via a well-placed freedom of information (FoI) request, revealing that the lengths that the government is prepared to go to justify extremely punitive policies. Remarkably, even the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) were alarmed at the level of deception, and said it had written to all of its members who work at the Department to find out whether they had played any part in putting the leaflet together.
Sarah Pinch, the CIPR’s president, said: “Falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support is a naive and opaque technique which blatantly disregards the CIPR’s standards of ethical conduct. It is deeply disappointing if public relations professionals allowed it to be published.”
This happened during the same month that the it was only this month that the UK statistics watchdog censured the DWP for “understating the scale” of its sanctions regime – essentially failing to release adequate data to give jobseekers or the public a genuine picture of the way it’s imposing sanctions, and of monitoring the real impact of this draconian policy. The revelation that the DWP has faked information to distort the reality that so many citizens face is reflective of how deep the rot is in the entire system.
Then there are the fictional statistics. Iain Duncan Smith was rebuked by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the ‘misuse’ of benefit statistics – his claim that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the benefit cap is “unsupported by the official statistics”, says the UK Statistics Authority.
In letter to Duncan Smith, Andrew Dilnot writes: “In the manner and form published, the statistics do not comply fully with the principles of the Code of Practice, particularly in respect of accessibility to the sources of data, information about the methodology and quality of the statistics, and the suggestion that the statistics were shared with the media in advance of their publication.”
Another claim by Duncan Smith later in the same month also drew criticism and a reprimand. The (then) minister said around 1 million people have been stuck on benefits for at least three of the last four years “despite being judged capable of preparing or looking for work”.
However, the figures cited also included single mothers, people who were seriously ill, and people awaiting testing. Grant Shapps was also rebuked by UK Statistics Authority for misrepresenting benefit figures – the Tory chairman claimed that “nearly a million people” (878,300) on incapacity benefit had dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for its successor, the employment and support allowance.
The figures, he claimed, “demonstrate how the welfare system was broken under Labour and why our reforms are so important”. The claim was faithfully reported by the Sunday Telegraph but as the UK Statistics Authority confirmed in its response to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, it was entirely fabricated.
In his letter to Shapps and Duncan Smith, UKSA chair Andrew Dilnot wrote that the figure conflated “official statistics relating to new claimants of the ESA with official statistics on recipients of the incapacity benefit (IB) who are being migrated across to the ESA”. Of the 603,600 incapacity benefit claimants referred for reassessment as part of the introduction of the ESA between March 2011 and May 2012, just 19,700 (somewhat short of Shapps’s “nearly a million) abandoned their claims prior to a work capability assessment in the period to May 2012.
The figure of 878,300 refers to the total of new claims for the ESA closed before medical assessment from October 2008 to May 2012. Thus, Shapps’s suggestion that the 878,300 were pre-existing claimants, who would rather lose their benefits than be exposed as “scroungers”, was entirely wrong. Significantly, there is no evidence that those who abandoned their claims did so for the reasons ascribed by Shapps.
Now the DWP have been found out submitting fake claims to the Work and Pensions Committee. The DWP claimed the Institute for Fiscal Stdies (IFS) had reviewed its data which asserts that UC will help more than 250,000 people into employment, once the flagship welfare reform is fully implemented across the UK. However the IFS have contradicted the claim, leading to heavy criticism regarding the DWP’s statement and ‘evidence’ regarding Universal Credit’s ‘causal relatonship’ with employment.
The Committee says:
“A central part of the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) case for the benefit of Universal Credit (UC) is their assertion of its effect on employment. In to a request for an estimate of the magnitude of that effect, DWP stated it has “determined” that UC will result in 250,000 more people in employment once it is fully implemented.
How the Department ‘arrived’ at these figures
In a follow up letter to Employment Minister Alok Sharma ( PDF 1.38 MB) the Chair asked a set of specific questions about how the Department had arrived at each of the stated constituent parts of that figure:
- 150,000 more due to “increased financial incentives to work”
- 50,000 more due to “increased conditionality”
- 60,000 due to “simplification of the benefit system”
(That’s basically euphemisms for cuts, sanctions, and more cuts and sanctions)
The Department’s response ( PDF 800 KB) did not answer any of the Chair’s specific questions, although it did supply an account of academic research papers that have informed the Department’s work on UC, and restated the principles underlying those three ostensible benefits of the reform.
DWP concluded by stating: “The approach to our analysis underpinning these estimates was reviewed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.”
Accordingly, the Committee wrote to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) ( PDF 141 KB) asking if, in that review, it had found those three estimates reasonable, and what the margin of statistical error might be on the numbers.
The IFS’ reply ( PDF 197 KB) starts out “clarifying the role we had in reviewing DWP’s approach” in coming up with the numbers:
“Note that at no stage did we review their approach to estimating the impact of increased conditionality or simplification, to which they attribute 50,000 and 60,000 respectively of the overall 250,000 forecast effect on employment”.
The employment impact of Universal Credit is highly uncertain
The IFS goes on to say: “Neil Couling’s letter to Baroness Hollis on 16 November states that the 250,000 figure is based on the same methodology we reviewed in 2012. For the reasons given above, that can only be true of the element (150,000) which is a result of changes to financial incentives. And we are not in a position to confirm whether and to what extent DWP took on board our comments and implemented our recommended improvements before applying the methodology….”
“The employment impact of UC is highly uncertain. The move to UC involves a number of changes for which it is hard to find comparable precedents (especially UK precedents)” — casting doubt on DWP’s use of academic evidence to substantiate its estimates — “It is not even possible to produce statistical margins of error for estimates of the employment impact, as the nature of the uncertainty is not conducive to standard statistical analysis…”
“Sadly, it will be difficult even after the event to produce convincing estimates of the overall employment impact of UC. The early impact estimates that DWP have published – cited in the Minister’s letter of 12 March – apply only to a small group of claimants who are not affected by UC in the same way as most other claimants […]” and;
“We emphasise that the overall employment impact of UC will conceal very different effects for different groups in the population, with employment rates likely to rise for some and fall for others.”
The last point contradicts what DWP have previously told the Committee when asked about the impact on other groups:
“We remain committed to producing robust comparative analysis of the employment impacts of Universal Credit. As we informed the Committee we are planning to expand the analysis for single cases in the Live Service to couples and families in both services.
This analysis will estimate a labout market impact for these broader claimant groups. In this instance it is misleading to draw a distinction between two services. The underlying policy for both is the same so any comparative analysis will hold true for both systems”.
Lack of evidence
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
“The ongoing lack of evidence to back up the much-vaunted employment impact of Universal Credit was already extremely disappointing. But to have our specific queries about basis of this claim answered with airy, irrelevant and, it appears, plainly inaccurate assertions adds insult to injury.
The IFS’ letter shows that Old Mother Hubbard hasn’t got much in the cupboard, despite the bragging of the Department. This clumsy and ill-judged attempt to piggyback on one of the most trusted, unimpugnable authorities on public policy and finance would be farcical if it was not so deeply worrying.”
Call it what it is, Frank. It’s just more glib, ideologically driven lies.
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